20 September 2007

Fooling the Dutch

I've taken up salsa again, only this time in Leiden. The night of the first class arrived, and I entered the room filled with nine others. Even though I suppose I'm an adult, I still get that first-day-of-school sensation. Will we get along? Will they like me? Of course, my anxiety now is heightened by the fact that I am an outsider. I am different. And although I would do my best to blend in, I knew it was just a matter of time before they knew it, too.

The class began in Dutch, as all other students were Dutch. Given the poor coordination skills that have haunted my past, I realized I'd just found another challenge: Even if I understand the instructions perfectly, my brain still does not pair "rechts" with "right" and "draai" with "turn" as quickly as I'd hoped. I would simultaneously have to translate unfamiliar words and get my feet to move in the proper direction, all in a split second. My brain was wheezing into overdrive after only five minutes, and I began to long for the moments with my Texan teacher.

Then we began a very difficult shine that I'd never seen before. For five minutes, the instructor agonizingly repeated it. I stepped right when they stepped left; forward when they stepped backward. Their hands went up, mine stayed clenched at my sides. Finally, she stopped, turned and looked directly at me, and switched to English. That's all it took: cover blown. She had thought I could handle the class without my native language, but she (quite fairly) attributed my horrible performance to my lack of understanding. The whole class stopped dancing, and turned to stare, sizing me up. I smiled bravely, nodding at her and doing my best to force my feet to do what they were told. But to no avail.

We then partnered up, and I stopped feeling like running from the room in tears. I even began to enjoy the dance. But I found myself having to explain again and again where I was from and what I was doing here. "Oh.....the United States....Minnesota? That's somewhere in the middle, right? Where do you work?" I'm perfectly capable of having these conversations in Dutch, but my resolve to speak had crumbled with the earlier humiliation.

I like to call this the perfectionist syndrome, and it is a deadly disease to have in the midst of language learning. But it's not just that: I am fixated on fooling the native population, and I do it almost every day. Many a transaction is completed in flawless Dutch; almost all of my neighbors and most of the cashiers at the supermarket are none the wiser, and we both walk away with smiles at the ease of it all. I am victorious. But it's a dangerous gamble, because if the moment comes when my accent is detected or I falter, they switch. Game over. Even if I insist on continuing in Dutch, it has simply become an exercise. I am no longer one of them. The vibe has vanished.

I see this vibe most clearly demonstrated in their facial expression. It shows that they stop seeing me as Dutch and start seeing me as an outsider. That fabulous moment of flawless integration, where I not only LOOK, but SOUND completely Dutch, where I get the privilege of seeing a familiarity that is reserved only for those of the same nationality (or race, social class, etc.) is breathtaking. But once difference is divulged - believe me, the look changes. It may not always be negative, but it becomes at best curious and reserved, and at worst uncomfortable and hostile. That's when I know I've lost them for good.

Maybe this is all simply a result of looking so much like the population I reside among (thanks to the blonde hair). Maybe it's easier for those who have a more distinguishing appearance...or perhaps that leads to more hostility. Maybe it would be better if I just gave up all this neurotic nonsense and accepted my status, embraced my difference and stumbled along in Dutch.

At least, at the end of the evening when the instruction ends and the party starts, salsa dancing requires no words, only smiles, eye contact and mutual understanding.

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